If one is looking for an archetype of a Green-Sports-preneur in the early 2020s, Laurent Petit might be it.
He brings a lifelong love of sports, a deep passion for the environment, a nimble entrepreneurial spirit, and serious social media chops to Active Giving, his Berlin-based startup that turns workouts into funding for environmental causes, including tree planting.
GreenSportsBlog spoke with Petit about his circuitous yet this-all-makes-sense journey, what it’s been like launching Active Giving during the coronavirus pandemic and how he plans to scale his business.
GreenSportsBlog: Laurent, it says here that Active Giving, the company you founded that turns workouts into funding for green causes, is a Green-Sports startup that could have a significant environmental impact.
To really understand Active Giving, you need to know your backstory. Talk about your early passions for sports and also music.
Laurent Petit: Well, Lew, as a kid — I’m from Brussels, Belgium and then grew up in France not far from Paris — I played many sports, including football (soccer), tennis, judo, and volleyball. But basketball was my favorite — I wanted to be an NBA star. I was all about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls back then.
GSB: You wanted to “Be Like Mike”…
Laurent: That’s right. I loved his movie “Space Jam”. Later on, it was Kevin Garnett, Vince Carter and of course, Kobe Bryant, may he rest in peace. But it became clear that my future was not going to be on an NBA court. So, as a teenager I became serious about fitness, working out, running and cycling.
At the same time, I was also interested in the music and art business, so I pursued communications and public relations in school, ultimately earning a Masters’ degree. My focus became the intersection of artists — musical and otherwise, their fans and brands.
After a brief experience in the music industry that included an internship in New York, helping out on PR with artists like The Strokes and Kings Of Leon, I developed an interest in street art. I returned to Paris and launched MusicOnWalls.com in 2014.
GSB: What was that about?
Laurent: MusicOnWalls.com (MOW) was inspired by me asking artists what inspired them. Many would say music, so I created an online platform that brings together visual art that was inspired by music and musical artists. People started following MOW and I started to think the music-art combination could be something big.
GSB: What did you do next?
Laurent: I decided I needed to move to a different city — one that was dynamic in music and art. Berlin fit the bill and so I made the switch basically in one day! Once there, as I was building MusicOnWalls and blogging, I got seriously back into running.
At that time, “running crews” in Berlin were huge…
GSB: What are “running crews”?
Laurent: They’re big group runs that really develop a community feeling. After a while, I got the idea of routing our runs past urban street art…
GSB: …Thus creating an intersection of sports, art and music?
Laurent: You got it! So, I created Urban Art Run in 2017 and ran crew runs that would pass a variety of urban art installations throughout Berlin. Brands like Adidas, lululemon and ON Running bought in and it started to take off a bit.
By September 2019, we were doing five or six runs per month. Companies like SoHo House signed on as they saw Urban Art Run as a great team building program. Things slow up from October to February and then the coronavirus hit…
GSB: …So, what did you do?
Laurent: I go on the runs by myself and then broadcast it over Instagram. Over the past few years I’ve built a decent personal following as a sport and fitness model, fitness influencer and event organizer. That has allowed me to consult with brands like McFit, a big gym chain, and Class Pass, who want to reach my followers.
GSB: That is so cool. How did this lead to Active Giving?
Laurent: Thanks! So, I had tried lots of fitness apps to track my workouts as I was building Urban Art Run. I’d post the workouts on my Instagram. This is a thing — people posting workouts — I’d ask myself, it’s nice to do but what’s the value?
So, I started thinking about connecting workouts and social value. Between 2015-18, I went on a solo, 1,000 km (625 mile) bike trip in each of those years, from, say, Berlin to Warsaw.
In 2018, I added a cause to the trip and I put up a Go Fund Me page, asking for donations, with the proceeds from the journey helping to build a school in Ghana.
GSB: Love it. How did you make out?
Laurent: Not great, tell you the truth. We cleared only maybe €1,500, despite my following and some German media stories about the trip. Even some of my friends didn’t support it!
GSB: That’s surprising to me. Why do you think that was the case?
Laurent: I’m not sure, exactly.
But for some reason I started to ask myself how can we use people’s physical activity to do good, to raise money for causes, rather than asking them for money?
Fitness apps prove that the physical activity happens, no problem there. And then folks would share on their social media channels that they are exercising to raise funds for a cause. That would attract more exercisers and maybe some donations but that’s not where the bulk of the funds would come from…
GSB: …The money would come from brands, right?
Laurent: Indirectly let’s say. In the Active Giving offering, brands and companies related to sports, lifestyle, health, fitness and wellness, make a financial commitment to us for the marketing services provided by in-app brand placement. Active Giving then uses the revenue generated from brand placement to support the social and environmental projects listed on the platform.
I began working on Active Giving at the end of 2018; we had our first run about a year ago.
GSB: How did it go?
Laurent: Our first Active Giving event was a 10K run with 36 runners at €1 per kilometer. The runners were so excited — they were happy to be part of something that was bigger than themselves while also getting exercise. Our sponsor was a local coffee house.
It was small but it was a proof-of-concept of sorts as we ended up getting invited to a Google Tech Star pitch-your-startup weekend in Berlin last June.
You pitch your idea for 60 seconds on a Friday…
GSB: Only 60 seconds? That has to be one heck of a minute!
Laurent: I know! Those selected for the next round take feedback from the judges and work to refine their ideas on Saturday and Sunday. On Sunday night, the finalists do a five minute pitch to the jury and a winner is selected.
GSB: How did Active Giving make out?
Laurent: We made the first cut, spent 48 hours improving the concept and pitched against ten other startups. And Active Giving won!
GSB: Congratulations! What did you win?
Laurent: We won three months of mentorship from the Funder Institute, which is a big deal. And I got to attend a Sustainable Start Up weekend where climate change was a common theme.
GSB: What was the consensus on climate?
Laurent: The idea was that we’re all affected by climate change, we’re all contributing to it, we all can do something about it. The idea of climate action being something that’s good for yourself and good for others, now and in the future.
I was already concerned about the issue and had made changes in my personal life — I don’t own a car, eat a plant-based diet, have reduced my plastic usage. But I know that personal steps aren’t going to make a big enough difference on climate. The power comes from aggregating climate actions — that will start to make the change we need.
GSB: So, how did you insert climate change into the Active Giving model?
Laurent: There are a variety of studies which show that tree planting is the only proven method to sequester carbon from the atmosphere. Planting trees in specific areas of the world also has a tremendous social impact on local communities by providing new sources of income to farmers. It also helps to reduce poverty and hunger.
Our vision is to create a digital fitness platform and a social network for good to shape the future of wellness by reinforcing a connection between physical health, communal responsibility and the global ecosystem.
On the micro level, how fun would it be if going for a run, going for a bike ride would result in the planting of a tree. And people can see the results. Very simple.
GSB: What came next?
Laurent: Going back to the Tech Star event, I realized there’s no way I could scale this thing by myself.
A few weeks prior, I was introduced to a guy named Till Harnos who is passionate about the environment, forests and he’s the fastest runner I know! He was one of the first supporters of the Active Giving and always wanted to help. And with his experience in finance and tech, it really was the perfect fit. Till became my co-founder and is now responsible for product development, finance and company operations.
One of the jurors who voted for us, Brittany Salas, a native Californian and yogi, is very interested in climate and wanted to help. She joined us as our third co-founder to support the integration of individual health and wellbeing into environmental sustainability. Brittany brings corporate innovation and venture capital experience to Active Giving and is primarily responsible for business development and strategic partnerships.
Last summer was spent brainstorming, building the proof of concept, reaching out to brands, finding tree planting partners, building a community and linking up Active Giving with Urban Art Run and more.
Within the six months prior to the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, we had recorded about 20,000 sport activities which contributed to the planting of nearly 75,000 trees. I have to say that there’s no way we get to this point without Till’s and Brittany’s contributions.
GSB: That is terrific. And then, as you said of course the coronavirus hit. It looks like things are starting to open up a bit, especially in Germany, as we head towards the summer. What are your plans for the summer, the rest of 2020 and beyond — knowing that plans in the current environment need to be flexible.
Laurent: Well, my dream is to have Roger Federer urge his followers to be physically active for the good of our planet with Active Giving!
Before that happens, we are continuing our outreach to forward thinking companies willing to support our users’ active lifestyles and the health of our planet. That will help us scale, both in terms of our business and our positive impact.
The public launch of our app will provide valuable feedback and learning. And we are also working on a variety of virtual events for our community and our partners.
GSB: When you reach out to brands, do you call marketing or other sections of the company?
Laurent: It really depends.
Sometimes we target a marketing person at a brand who wants to reach our community of Active Givers. Sometimes we will go to the corporate social responsibility (CSR) department as they could have funds for our type of event. And other times, we’ll connect with human resources as a way of encouraging employee engagement with wellness activities.
GSB: How has the outreach been going during this coronavirus pandemic?
Laurent: COVID-19 has drastically impacted our go to market strategy and put all previously agreed upon commitments on hold
Active Giving has done our best to take the pandemic in stride and is using it as an opportunity to create a strong digital community with a focus on bringing value to end users and sponsors. We have started to onboard non-profit projects that are supporting healthcare workers in rural areas of the world.
Our early supporters are some of Berlin’s most well-known fitness instructors. They were the first to be impacted by pandemic restrictions and needed to adapt quickly to ensure their livelihoods. In response to the overnight digital transformation of the fitness industry we implemented a virtual class calendar that allows instructors to not only promote their classes but also to enable their students to support a good cause like planting trees.
GSB: Who is planting your trees?
We currently work with two tree planting partners.
Trees for the Future, a U.S. nonprofit which plants trees in areas of dire need, from Kenya to Senegal to Uganda and more. Their forest gardens will help increase crop yield efficiency and therefore improve famers’ livelihoods.
Eden Reforestation Projects partners with villages in — Nepal, Haiti and four other countries — that are committed to restoring their forests, hiring and training locals to do the planting.
All of our projects have been in operation for more than ten years and hold multiple certifications. Anyone can find out more about the projects and their impact assessments through our website.
GSB: So Active Giving has proven the run-to-plant-trees model works locally. How do you scale it?
Laurent: It’s more than running — Active Giving also supports cycling, workout, walking, yoga and almost all trackable sport activities.
How fast we scale will come down to accelerating our numbers of active and eco-conscious users while spreading our message across channels with athletes and brands that support our users’ active lifestyle as well as the health of our planet.
Our new app (click here for access to beta version) should make things even easier for Active Giving’s sport enthusiasts and our brands to make good on our mission: To allow anyone who wishes to better her/himself through sport and fitness to also contribute to a better world and embrace a more eco-conscious lifestyle.
Mural in the photo at the top of this post: Bosoletti & Young Jarus (Photo credit for the photo at the top of this post: Vismante Ruzgaite)